The spectre of ethnic violence reappears

In the light of a recent series of bills proposed by the Myanmar government that seek to restrict an individual's right to religious freedom, critics fear a further increase in discrimination and violence against the marginalised community of Rohingya Muslims. By Roma Rajpal Weiß

By Roma Rajpal Weiß

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been fraught with tension between the country's Buddhist majority and Muslim minority since June 2012, when deadly violence erupted between the two groups in the state of Rakhine. An estimated 1.3 million people have been displaced since the riots.

Extremist Buddhists claim that their culture and race is under threat, given the growing population of Muslims and the conversion of Buddhist girls to Islam through inter-faith marriages. Instigating hatred, nationalist monks have reportedly encouraged mobs to attack Muslims, boycott Muslim businesses, and curb inter-faith marriages and conversions to Islam.

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told that the ethnic community known as Rohingya Muslims is in a deplorable state. "They are denied citizenship and face human rights abuses so severe that legal experts say they could be classified as crimes against humanity."

He went on to say that despite the severe repression of the Rohingya Muslims, the international community has embraced President Thein Sein. "The EU has lifted sanctions, and the country is prioritising trade."

A soldier walks amid the rubble of a neighbourhood in Pauktaw township, Myanmar, which was burned in violence in October 2012 (Reuters)
Following the violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state, boatloads of fleeing Rohingya Muslims struggled to reach refugee camps and sought safety on islands and in coastal villages

"Discriminatory" legislation

However, the recent series of bills, drafted by the government on the basis of a petition submitted to the president by the Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion (OPNRR), echoes the sentiment of extremist Buddhists, and experts have cause to believe that this could stir further tension.

Paul Robertson, deputy director Asia at Human Rights Watch believes that the Myanmar government is politically motivated in allowing these bills to be drafted and publicised, in part to show that they are the defenders of religion, of Buddhism.

The bills intend to prevent "forced" conversions, to "protect race and religion" and to restrict inter-faith marriage in the Buddhist-majority country. The Religious Conversion Bill proposes a process by which the citizens of Myanmar would need to obtain official permission to change their religion. It would also grant officials the power to interrogate the person seeking to change his or her religion.

Human rights groups have condemned the legislation as "discriminatory". "We are concerned that such a bill is even being proposed. The Religious Conversion Bill is quite sinister. It sets out criminal penalties for persons who encourage conversions of religion, in a way that might be considered 'forced'," Robertson told

He went on to say that the government has no business regulating an individual's decision on what to believe, the freedom to choose one's religion, to change one's religion or to have no religion. "The draft does not say anything about Muslims, but given that the proponents of the bill are a coalition of monks, it is naturally assumed that the bill is specifically targeted against Muslims."

Robertson believes that the devil is in the detail and that the bill's implementation could easily be abused. "We are concerned that local officials who are primarily Buddhist and susceptible to influence by some of these extremist Buddhists, may not be neutral at all, and we can assume that people from Buddhism converting to any other religion could face a very difficult time in getting permission to do so."

Myanmar Buddhist monks offer prayers during a rally against recent violence in Rakhine state, Yangon, Myanmar, October 2012 (photo: AP)
Myanmar Buddhist monks offer prayers during a rally against recent violence in Rakhine state. Nearly 200 protesters including Buddhist monks called for the stop of renewed violence in western coast of Myanmar

Ethnic cleansing

The proposed bill comes at a sensitive time, when the country's marginalised Muslim community is still recuperating from the campaign of "ethnic cleansing" carried out against them for the last two years.

The group United To End Genocide has warned that the signs point to a potential genocide of Rohingya Muslims and that a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing has been committed against them. Human Rights Watch documented the role of the Myanmar government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of what the UN calls as the 'world's most persecuted people.'

Robertson told "Muslims were targeted, and Buddhist monks were instigating violence and hatred and in some cases encouraging mobs as they attacked Muslims. It was violence between long-standing neighbours; Buddhists and Muslims had lived side by side for decades."

"Intruders" from Bangladesh

Members of this ethnic community, which has been in Myanmar since the seventeenth century, are perceived as "intruders" from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. Denied citizenship in their home country, thousands remain confined to camps, while hundreds have fled to neighbouring countries like Thailand and Bangladesh. Both countries refuse to accept them.

Farmaner believes that President Thein Sein deliberately wants to make their life so unbearable that they flee. "Some are in camps in Bangladesh in appalling conditions because of restrictions on aid imposed by the government of Bangladesh. Many of the rest are spread out in countries in Asia and the Middle East, working illegally or temporarily as migrant workers and vulnerable to exploitation."

Senior UN officials have described the conditions in the camps as the 'worst they have ever seen'. The Myanmar government imposes restrictions on aid delivery, having recently forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to cease operations. Large mobs of Buddhists from the state of Rakhine have reportedly attacked aid workers who have been trying to help Rohingya Muslims.

Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi, India (photo: Nirmal Yadav)
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar can be found not only in neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh, but across Asia. Pictured here is a Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi, India

Growing kernel of Buddhist extremism

The situation is rapidly getting worse for the Rohingya Muslims as nationalist monks have been trying to cleanse Burma of the "intruders", as a way of protecting their race and religion. "There is no doubt whatsoever that President Thein Sein and his administration have been looking the other way as this growing kernel of Buddhist extremism spreads" says Robertson.

Robertson can't imagine a more dangerous course of action than the one the government has taken with the proposal of the controversial bills. "By taking up such sensitive issues, which would particularly affect minorities like the Muslims, the disputes could derail the Burmese reform process." He believes that it is important to exert international pressure on President Thein Sein to push him to change course.

Roma Rajpal Weiß

© 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/